There he was, strutting up the football pitch, physically smaller than most but owning the field, owning the moment, owning the cameras, puffy cheeked, shirt always looking a little too big, never hiding his emotions.
Ian Wright won a Premier League title, the FA Cup (twice) and the European Cup Winners’ Cup with Arsenal and played 33 times for England (scoring nine goals).
He had been among the first black English athletes to personify our existence in this country.
Before he signed for Palace in 1985, Wright had been playing Sunday League football while working as a labourer. He’d had run-ins with the law and once spent two weeks in Chelmsford Prison.
An everyday man, a working-class hero, the underdog, a trier who appreciated every opportunity he had and grabbed it with both hands. It helped that he had a strong southeast London accent, so he couldn’t be accused of being a ‘foreigner’.
It helped that he pledged his undying devotion to England, so he couldn’t be accused of having split loyalties.
Wright did not moderate his behaviour like other black athletes. The media, fans, managers or opponents that considered him brash, wild and chippy didn’t seem to bother him.
Wright played with the heart of a lion and, while not necessarily flashy like the Brazilians, he performed with similar levels of theatrical verve.
He had shown black players who would follow that they didn’t need to strictly play to the media and fans’ agendas to attain popularity and acceptance. He didn’t minimise. He wasn’t marginalised.
This had not been my reality in adult life. Whenever Wright featured in any publication I bought, he reinforced his uncompromising ethos. ‘I won’t sell myself out. I’m true to myself.’
Watching Wright screw up all those restrictions, my insecurities, told me that, in a little way, I could be me, not perfect, not always correct, but just be me.
In 1996 Wright said: “ My priority is to see the black community start caring about itself, unify and stand proud. I want us to be constructive members of society and build for our future.’
The Observer once wrote the following about Wright’s appearance on This Is Your Life in 2000: ‘[It was] just a big warm celebration featuring an awful lot of very un-white, un-middle class touchy-feeliness, Suddenly, in living colour, England looked like another country, and it was good.’
It had not been another country. It had been your country, your England. This was England. For you, perhaps, a new nation. For us, nothing new.
I was never quite sure what Wright stood for. In truth, I didn’t care. He had been our contradictions and our assertiveness.
For me, more than anything, Wright was how we could be if we didn’t edit ourselves as a minority.
Shared experience and a shared birthplace could be compatible after all. Black and British.
Ian Wright provided a lens into black lives. He was one of the most significant sportsmen from these shores.
This article is an edited extract from Derek Bardowell’s book No Win Race – a story of belonging, Britishness and sport.